Cocktails | Conversations, Dissonance Fashioning Harmony

A dialogue with Stephen Anderson – musician, songwriter, and videographer

Photography by MeiLi Smith of Olena Films

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Stephen Anderson was born and raised in Fargo – and remained there until 2016 when he moved to Denver. I met him at Bellwether, a coffee and cocktail bar on Colfax Ave. Bellwether is also a social club with a classic barbershop and lounge in the back – which is where Anderson and I talked over whiskey and beers, starting the evening with a concoction suggested by the bartender that involved bourbon and Fernet Branca.

A Wallflower in Flatland | Moving downtown was big, I met musicians and artists – it was eye opening.

Anderson is an only child. His mother was 42 years old when he was born. She worked as a nurse for Veteran Affairs, but retired when Anderson was in 8th grade. His father continues to “sell and service coin wrappers and currency counting machinery,” and hasn’t slowed down. “I think there will always be a commercial world for [his line of work],” says Anderson. “…especially with all the casinos. He stays busy.”

In addition to being an only child, and the significant age difference between himself and his parents, Anderson’s mother and father were private people – they didn’t wear their hearts on their sleeves. These household elements resulted in an independent, and somewhat isolated, upbringing. “I didn’t really have to deal with conflict since I didn’t have a brother beating me up. It was just my parents and I, and they were reserved. I was a quiet kid – my parents didn’t share, so I thought I shouldn’t either. I’ve done a lot of listening and not much talking. I’m still learning to talk with people.”

“Fargo is kind of a college town…but without the excitement. North Dakota is like a piece of paper…flat and white. There’s about an eight square block radius of downtown Fargo that’s [different]…where the art is…in a very concentrated part of the city.”


North Dakota is the 47th least populated state – beating Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming. It was admitted into the Union on November 2nd 1889, simultaneously with South Dakota. Bordered by Minnesota, Montana, and Canadian provinces, it’s named after a Native American tribe and First Nations people – a branch of the Sioux. It has the most churches per capita of any state, with two-thirds of the population being Lutheran and Catholic.

Fargo was founded in 1871 and is located on the Red River, with its twin city Moorhead, Minnesota directly across. A fire in June of 1893 destroyed 31 blocks, and 64 years later a violent F5 tornado struck the city in June of 1957 – resulting in 12 casualties, over 300 homes destroyed and an additional thousand damaged. Yankees right fielder Roger Maris grew up in Fargo. In 1961, he set the Major League record for homeruns in a season, beating Babe Ruth’s previous record in 1927. The city has the largest population in North Dakota – followed by the state’s capital, Bismarck. Located in the Red River Valley, the surrounding land is some of the richest in the world for agriculture, but it’s also prone to severe flooding. The city has been voted worst weather city in the Midwest multiple times.


“Winters are horrible…you will die out there,” says Anderson. “February is the worst – it will get down to negative 10 [Fahrenheit] or negative 20, but if there’s wind – because North Dakota has the topography of a table – the wind-chill will be negative 40.”

 Anderson enrolled at North Dakota State University for an education in broadcast journalism, and moved to downtown Fargo – which proved to be a defining chapter because of the aforementioned “eight square block radius where the art is.” He worked at a theatre as a projectionist, exposed to independent and foreign films – and also the university’s radio station, KNDS. “There were ten of us: a ragtag group that loved bizarre music. We huddled in a tiny, dingy room, broadcasting to maybe a dozen people but having the time of our lives.”

“Moving downtown was big. I wasn’t exposed to arts or displaying creativity as a child. Being downtown in Fargo, I met musicians and artists…it was eye opening.” Also working at the movie theatre and radio station was a girl he knew from high school jazz band – she played piano and sang, and had independent bands of her own (and eventually a collaborative project with Anderson). “To backtrack some, that was when I began pursuing music: playing in high school jazz band, ripping a guitar solo in front of 300 moms and dads. At fourteen, it was invigorating – and I thought, ‘I want to do this all the time.’”

Anderson met his partner, MeiLi Smith, at university – she was working on a documentary about masculinity and the effects of bullying, and selected Anderson to interview. The interview turned into both a conversation and an unexpected connection – starting a lasting, committed relationship that continues today.

Later, under pressure, Smith quickly taught Anderson to use a camera to work as a second shooter for a wedding. Today, they have a videography business for weddings and elopements called Olena Films. “North Dakota and Minnesota is very Norwegian and Scandinavian. There’s this regional joke that centers on Ole and Lena, this elderly Norwegian couple. We were trying to come up with a business name – so we started looking at our roots for something that we could relate to.”

“Visually, MeiLi is much more creative. She has a clear vision, knows how things should look, and a sense of timing – she [directs] the creative aspect and I handle the business logistics. My organization combined with her creativity makes Olena Films.”

Good Vibrations and Proustian Memories | I need to hear a record to death. I want to hear every facet. I want to know every lyric and every player.

 Anderson humbly steps back, “I don’t want to slam my parents for not fostering creativity. They bought my guitars and came to all my concerts. Also, one of my formative moments was when my dad bought this CD called Waiting for Columbus by Little Feat. My dad and I were out driving in the rural countryside and he put this CD on, and something about it was transformative. It’s a live album…and sonically amazing.”


Little Feat was formed in 1969 by Lowell George and Bill Payne. The classic line-up of members disbanded in 1979, shortly before George’s death. George led an over-indulgent lifestyle of binge eating, binge drinking, and speedballs (a heroin and cocaine mix). He ultimately died from a heart attack triggered by a cocaine overdose. The band’s style is eclectic, being described as Americana, blues, jam, boogie, Southern, funk, and New Orleans jazz. Outside of Little Feat, George worked with Frank Zappa, The Grateful Dead, and James Taylor. Bill Payne has worked with the Doobie Brothers, Pink Floyd, Stevie Nicks, Carly Simon, and Toto. In a 1975 Rolling Stone interview, Led Zeppelin’s guitarist Jimmy Page stated that Little Feat was his favorite American band. Waiting for Columbus was the band’s first live album, and it was recorded over several shows in 1977.


“I’ve always been drawn to artists that fly under the radar – musicians who aren’t rocking stadiums and get lost in the shuffle. Little Feat were weird – their lyrics were nonsensical and surreal, and their song [structures] were atypical. I didn’t know music could be like this. It wasn’t on classic rock radio – which, at the time, was all I had. There was something about Waiting for Columbus that was momentous – I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. Then I thought, ‘What else is out there?’ I had this horrible methodology of going on Wikipedia and reading the liner notes for records…falling down rabbit holes of producers. Eventually, I [was listening to] world music, rap, and R&B. There aren’t many records that I consider 10s, but Waiting for Columbus is a hard ten…and when Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues came out, I thought, ‘this is perfection – this is a perfect record.’ Later, but in a similar baroque-folk vein, there was listening to Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter.


Fleet Foxes is a folk band that formed in Seattle around 2006, and has consistently received acclaim across their three albums: Fleet Foxes (2008), Helplessness Blues (2011), and Crack-Up (2017). Their second LP was nominated for Best Folk Album at the 2012 Grammy Awards. Josh Tillman, better known as Father John Misty, is a former band member and has released several solo recordings to much praise.

Nick Drake was an English singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. He suffered from depression and increasingly became asocial during his later years. He died in 1974, at the age of 26, from an overdose. He recorded three albums: Five Leaves Left (1969), Bryter Layter (1971), and Pink Moon (1972). Drake’s reclusiveness and refusal to tour resulted in a lack of commercial success during his lifetime. In later decades, he has received increasing recognition and growing posthumous sales.


Questioned about nostalgia, Anderson retold this memory: “I had this collection of Kinks B-sides. My parents owned a farm in Minnesota, and nearly every summer weekend we’d go there to garden, mow, and knock down trees. We had a mower purchased at an auction, and I would ride for hours listening to my Zune on shuffle, and I remember distinctly listening to The Kinks – they take me back to being fourteen, lanky, awkward, and mowing. Songs can be tied to a general time, and some can be pinpoint specific. In 8th grade, I was given a record player – and later, inherited my uncle’s vinyl collection – and I remember sitting in the basement listening to The Yes Album by Yes and being blown away.”


Brothers Ray and Dave Davies formed The Kinks in 1964. Their breakout hit was their third single, “You Really Got Me.” It was described as “a love song for street kids.” Often referred to as “the original punks,” The Kinks influenced the Ramones and The Clash – and were admired by many guitarists, including Brian May of Queen and Pete Townshend of The Who.

The Yes Album was by progressive rock band, Yes. It was their third (and breakout) album – released in February 1971. Yes started as a covers band; this was their first album of entirely original material.

Zune is a now discontinued media player produced by Microsoft. First released in 2006, it was an alternative to Apple’s iPod.


“I need to hear a record to death. I need to hear it in my car to death. I need to hear it in my monitors to death…in my headphones…I want to hear every facet, I want to know every lyric…every player.”

Jade Vases and Silver Dots | I love songwriting, and all aspects of it – but it’s a laborious process. It’s a frustrating pain in the ass.

In July 2016, Stephen Anderson moved to Denver with MeiLi Smith. Wanting to continue creating and performing music, Anderson quickly put out feelers. He started scouring Craigslist, but found it to be a “mess” and a “wasteland.” For a long time, Anderson scrolled through online pages, waiting for an attractive opportunity or project amongst the online classified ads. “I met too many strange people. I ended up jamming at this guy’s house…he was very pushy…it was the worst. [I was] in a basement, with bongs all over, and [I was just waiting] to get out.”

Eventually, Anderson met Ryan Servis – and Jake Moss shorty after. The three of them became the foundation of Jade Vases. Servis is the band’s keyboardist and co-vocalist, and Moss plays guitar. “The biggest connector was Ryan knew who Van Dyke Parks was – he [worked] with the Beach Boys. With Jake, [it was] White Denim. I didn’t know anyone who liked these artists. When I met Ryan and Jake, I thought, This could work.”

They found their bassist, Matt Hedgpeth, by putting up a flyer – Hedgpeth saw the posting while walking his dog. Through various connections, they met their original drummer, Joey Chance. He happened to be on downtime from The Oh Hellos and looking for projects in the interim. The band only had Chance for a limited time until he hit the road. Afterwards, Jade Vases went through a couple drummers “…until we found our boy, Lucas [Huffman].”

By this time in the conversation, Stephen and I worked ourselves down to cheap, but delicious, lagers (Old Style or Olympia, I can’t remember) – and Anderson began talking about creating music, describing his process in juxtaposition to Servis’s approach.

“Watching Ryan [Servis] is fascinating. He has an understanding of the classical song form – which blows my mind because I don’t think that way. He’s what I imagine songwriters who wrote for [other performers] in the ‘50s and ‘60s were like: This is how you write a hit – this is how it’s done. You can ask him to create a bridge in thirty minutes and he knows what to do. I’ll tune my guitar and play around with no direction, feeling my way in the dark. I see many parallels between Ryan and myself – but creatively, we’re on opposite ends of the spectrum.”

Jade Vases’ Silver Dots EP was released on October 19th – and is currently available both digitally and on cassette tape. They have an upcoming performance in Colorado Springs with Nina & The Hold Tight. The show will be at The Principal’s Office – in the former Ivywild Elementary School. It starts at 7:30pm on Tuesday, November 6th.

Silver Dots EP

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Kristian DePue: Instagram


Jade Vases website

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Olena Films: olenafilms.com


Bellwether: bellwetherdenver.com


Nina and The Hold Tight:

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The Principal’s Office: http://www.poativywild.com/

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Carlos of Lee Spirits Co.

Cocktails | Conversations, Carlos David Garcia of Lee Spirits Co. 

A wild, untamed youth learns nobility through art. – Jacques d’Amboise, award-winning dancer and choreographer

Header photo, Carlos

I took note of Carlos David Garcia while a guest at his gin bar – he was having fun, enjoying his work, seemingly the ringleader of entertainment. Later, I had the privilege of speaking with him over wine at The Wild Goose Meeting House in downtown Colorado Springs. Next-door, Garcia works as bar manager of the gin speakeasy, Brooklyn’s on Boulder Street. The cocktail lounge hides behind the facade of an early 20th century haberdashery, and operates as the tasting room for Lee Spirits Co.


Established by cousins Nick and Ian Lee, Lee Spirits Co. is a Colorado-based distillery that crafts fine gin and artisan liqueurs fitting for classic cocktail recipes and modern drinks inspired by such. Brooklyn’s on Boulder St. is Lee Spirits’ tasting room, inspired by Prohibition-era speakeasies, and masked with the front of a fine clothing store.


Garcia’s father was born in Peru and came to the States in his teens. He arrived with his grandmother, who wanted a new opportunity. “The story [is] grey,” says Garcia. “Overall, my father doesn’t talk about it.”

According to family lore, his great grandmother was a Visconti, a noble name of Italian dynasties. She married a racecar driver – which, at that time, was considered a peasant’s occupation – and her family disowned her. However, her husband became very successful, and she traveled with him as he raced around the world. He sadly crashed and died in Peru, where she would eventually remarry.

In an entirely differing locale, Garcia’s midwestern mother was born in Nebraska. His parents met in Denver, where he went to high school and also ran from home – he and his father came to odds during his youth – and Garcia stubbornly lived in cars and on couches until “adopted.”

“I always wear this,” says Garcia, displaying a necklace. “The pendant reads, Love Always, Leva. [Leva] was this girl I knew from newspaper class…and a friend. Her family took me in before college. Initially, I wasn’t gonna go [to college]; I planned to drop out my sophomore year.”

A teacher convinced him to graduate, and during his senior year she threatened to fail him if he didn’t apply to colleges. “I applied just to be a smartass. I was accepted by UCCS and my teacher was like, ‘Just go. Freshman year is basically partying.’ I thought that sounded appealing.”

 After taking an entrepreneur class, he fell in love with education and graduated.

They said I was too charismatic and outgoing – that I wouldn’t be a good bartender.

 Working in the service industry throughout his teens, he’d always been interested in tending bar – persistently asking to be put behind it. “Every place said I was too charismatic and outgoing – that I wouldn’t be good because I wouldn’t focus on getting drinks done. They were corporate jobs – and at the time, I thought they made sense.”

His journey to bar manager of Brooklyn’s started with his college capstone (senior exhibition) – to create a business. At the time, tequila fascinated him, along with other agave-based liquors, such as mezcal, raicilla, and bacanora.


Mezcal is distilled from a variety of agave plants – unlike tequila, which is only distilled from blue agave. Mezcal gets its smokiness when the heart of the plant, known as the piña, is roasted in stone-lined pits. It is primarily produced in Oaxaca.

Raicilla is similar to mezcal, the hearts are harvested, fire-roasted, mashed, fermented and distilled. Originating in Jalisco, Raicilla pre-dates the arrival of conquistadors. It is typically more than 100 proof.

Bacanora has been made and distilled the same way for hundreds of years. Workers harvest the agave’s piña and roast it in volcanic rock. It ferments in airtight cement pits and then is distilled. Bacanora was bootlegged for many generations, only being made legal in 1992. It is produced in Sonora municipalities.


For his capstone, he wanted to start a tequila distillery. During this time, he met Ian and Nick Lee through an entrepreneurial program. He reached out to them, asking to be taught distilling. The Lee cousins agreed to, and Garcia volunteered his time in exchange – bottling, sweeping, and mopping.

One day, Garcia arrived late, and the Lees asked why. “I told them I applied to be a bartender. I needed a job.” The Lee cousins, both baffled, offered a position on the floor – answering the door, greeting guests, serving, and washing dishes. Quickly, opportunities kept opening – bar back…bartender…head bartender – leading to Garcia filling his current role. “I’ve been bar manager for a year. Ian and Nick opened the door, and Nate [Windham] mentored me – he taught me everything.”

You can make the best martini, but if you’re a dick, people will go somewhere else.

 Windham, who’d been tending bars for 20 years, showed Garcia what to read – American Bar by Charles Schumann, Jerry Thomas’ Bartender’s Guide, The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart, Straight Up or On The Rocks by William Grimes, and Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails.

Death & Co opened on New Years Eve 2006/07 in Manhattan’s East Village, and has since received worldwide recognition as a cocktail institution and industry leader. In the spring of 2018, Death & Co opened a second establishment in Denver, inside The Ramble Hotel – located in the River North (RiNo) Arts District.

“Nate was charismatic. His knowledge was impressive. He was the opposite of what the corporate bars told me,” says Garcia. “His approach was about having fun while teaching. He would tell me, ‘We teach people how to drink.’ Under Nate, the things that were most beneficial related to the mindset of [focusing on] the guest. At the end of the day, you can make the best martini, but if you’re a dick to everyone…people will go somewhere else.”

Garcia intentionally refers to his customers as guests. He wants them to feel as if they’ve been intentionally invited into his home. As a result, he’s met and affected people from all walks of life. “I’ll never forget this private party…a guest thanked me, saying, ‘I was in the military. I haven’t relaxed like this in fifteen years.’ He almost started crying. He was drinking, so I took it with a grain of salt. However, his daughter wasn’t drinking. She comes up saying, ‘I’ve never seen my father this happy.’ That melted my heart.”

When it comes to spirits and bars, the question is: What’s your goal?

Garcia and I are talking about favorite drinks and bars, and he mentions taverns in Denver: American Bonded, Nocturne, Union Lodge No. 1, Ste. Ellie, Cooper Lounge, and Star Bar. “I really enjoy Star Bar. It feels like a dive, but those bartenders really know what they’re doing,” says Garcia. “My favorite, though, is The Dead Rabbit in New York, in Lower Manhattan. That was, hands down, the best.”


The Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog is a pub in the Financial District (FiDi) of Lower Manhattan, New York City. Since opening in 2013, the establishment has won several prestigious awards, including World’s Best Bar 2016 by World’s 50 Best Bars.


As far as drinks go, his first choices are simple and traditional. “My knowledge comes from Lee Spirits,” Garcia admits. “I’m surrounded by gin; I love gin. My favorite cocktail is a Tom Collins or a Bronx.”


A Tom Collins (likely deriving its name from Old Tom gin) was memorialized with Jerry Thomas’s 1876 recipe. A typical Tom Collins is built as such:

3 parts gin

2 parts freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 part simple syrup

Carbonated water to taste

Mix the gin, lemon juice, and sugar syrup with ice – top with soda water, garnish with a lemon slice and maraschino cheery, and serve in a Collins glass (typically taller and narrower than a highball glass).

A Bronx is essentially a martini with orange juice. In the early 20th Century, the Bronx was a popular rival to the martini and the Manhattan. Like the Manhattan, the Bronx is named after one of New York City’s five boroughs. A Bronx recipe’s proportions vary, but the drink is commonly made as follows:

6 parts gin

3 parts sweet red vermouth

2 parts dry vermouth

3 parts orange juice

Pour ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice; shake well, and strain into a chilled martini glass. Serve the drink straight up, without ice, and garnished with an orange peel.


Garcia continues, “When it comes to drinking, the question is: What are you trying to achieve? What’s your goal? If you want something that tastes like hot cinnamon candy that’ll get you drunk, Fireball wins. If you want a craft experience, then an entirely different option wins. If you want to play video games and drink beer all night, you can go to Supernova, [the arcade bar] across the street.”

I’ve never been creative in any other avenue. This is the best industry where I can keep growing.

He paints a picture for me of how Brooklyn’s menu is created – a collaborative effort akin to a writer’s room. A suggestion for an experimental syrup, such as beet syrup, is pitched from someone on the team and they will make it. The concept is tasted as a group, and paired with various elements. Feedback and criticism is given; changes are made. “Lee Spirits is a quality brand. We’ve strived to be the best,” says Garcia. “To be the best, you can’t have an ego.”

He continues, admitting, “I’m not a creative person – I can’t draw…can’t sing…can’t write. I’ve never been creative in any other avenue. This is the best industry where I can keep growing.”

Lee Spirits Co. is growing as well, beyond Colorado, selling their products now in Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma, with plans for further expansion.

With wine glasses empty, I ask if he has anything that he would like to plug – any events, competitions or projects – and he tells me about a new venture that he is developing, Behind The Stick. It’s a podcast that he is creating and recording. The name, Behind The Stick, is a phrase that means, “behind the bar” – possibly, not certainly, referring to the tap handles pulled to pour draft beers. He describes the podcast as being “by bartenders for bartenders,” with conversations about how to learn and grow in the industry. “I’m interviewing bar managers, brand ambassadors, and distillers. I just interviewed a woman who works for Death & Co. New York, actually.”

As we’re getting up from our table, Garcia adds a coda to our conversation, telling me, “[Lee Spirits] is [incredibly] giving and caring to their employees – they [press] all of us to grow and become better people. This company has changed my life. …I learned to keep pushing, keep trying, and stay hungry.”

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Kristian DePue, contributing writer for Springs magazine and Edible Pikes Peak Region

Instagram: @kristiandepue


Photographs by Devin Richter, Sun Chaser Studios

sunchaserstudios.info

Instagram: @sunchaserstudios

*Drinks photographed (top to bottom): Tom Collins, Bronx, Martinez


Lee Spirits Co. | A Craft Gin Distillery in Colorado Springs

leespirits.com

Instagram: @leespiritsco


Carlos David Garcia | Bar Manager of Brooklyn’s on Boulder St.

Instagram: @carlosthecreative

Vignette: To waste or not to waste

Years ago, I briefly worked for a wastewater treatment department. I worked for the arm of public works infrastructure that handles…toilet water.

This was for a small city in Northern Indiana. And at that time, the city was in the midst of transitioning from an old wastewater treatment facility to a newer, larger one just outside of town. The old plant was over half a century old, and it was showing its age with its yellow paint chipping away, exposing rust and crumbling concrete. I can still vividly picture the abandoned laboratory above the control room, filled with chemistry glassware and boxes. All the lab technicians had moved, working solely out of the new facility, leaving behind a room for dust-filled sunlight and ghosts.

One summer day, I was lowered into a manhole by a cable. This was not common for me, in my role. However, I was the smallest person in the department. I was also the youngest. Everyone else was significantly older and larger. They claimed that no one would fit other than me. This manhole was in an old part of town, and it was claustrophobic, but I think none of them wanted to suit up.

I was put in a jumpsuit, with boots, gloves, hardhat and protective eyewear. A harness was strapped around my torso and connected to a cable, and the cable was connected to a tripod positioned over the open sewer access point. Slowly, I was lowered down, with a robot in my gloved hands.

When I say “robot,” I am referring to a remotely controlled camera on wheels. This camera sent a real time video feed to a box truck filled with a monitor and controls – simply referred to as “the camera truck.” A former plumber named John was the regular operator of the camera truck. John was the closest in age to me, and he was over a decade older, and nearly three times my size. He looked like he played football in high school, and probably did. …He liked ACDC, and lost part of his hearing to their music.

I was lowered until I was suspended eye-level with an old, clay pipeline about six to eight inches in diameter. The city’s wastewater was moved primarily by gravity. The lines were all on a gradual slant, and ran great distances to pump stations, or what they call “lift stations.” Lift stations would raise the collected wastewater back to a higher elevation, and it would then again be conveyed by gravity. This underground network of conventional gravity lines and lift stations eventually transported the dirty water to the treatment plant, where it would go through various physical, chemical and biological processes – including the use of ultraviolet light and oxygenation – to produce environmentally safe effluent.

“Effluent” simply means water discharge…or the outflow of water.

I placed the robot safely in the pipeline and Big John, in the camera truck, remotely drove it until it was out of my sight. He found what they suspected: a wastewater line from a nearby home was discharging into the pipe I placed the robot in. It was a problem, because the manhole I was lowered into was not for sewage water – it was for storm water. There are storm water lines and waste water lines underneath towns and cities. Storm water is rain run off; there are drains on roads to keep rainwater from pooling up and flooding the streets. But a toilet – that belonged to a man in a bathrobe, underwear and boots – was flushing into this pipe intended only for rain drainage, not human excrement. His ass was polluting our town.

This was the only time I was lowered into a manhole. However, it was not the only time I had to suit up in the disposable coveralls, latex gloves, rubber boots and safety glasses. More than once, I found myself in the bottom of a drained settling tank, or what they call “clarifiers,” with a push broom sized squeegee. It was like cleaning an empty pool with a toothbrush, except this pool normally held water that would cause Polio.

On Fridays, someone had to do a job we simply called “Trouble Spots,” and normally this someone was Old Dave. Trouble Spots referred to checking shallow manholes around town where converging lines were known to often plug, or commonly backup, for various reasons. One trouble spot, for example, was just outside a cigarette store called Low Bob’s. One of the lines leading to this manhole came from a nearby house that was known to have five-too-many people living in it. It was a busy pipeline, is what I’m saying. Trouble Spots was, overall, an easy Friday job, but needed to be done before the weekend break. If no trouble was found, the job would take half a day – done by lunch. Old Dave was rarely in a hurry, though. Old Dave was coming up on retirement.

Not always, but often someone would go with him, and half the time it was me. Dave would drive, and I would get out, open up the manholes and inspect them. I liked Dave. In fact, out of all the employees, he was the one I connected with most. I liked his carefree spirit, and his sense of humor.

One time, while riding with him. I, for whatever reason, mentioned aloud how I needed to get in the gym and start lifting weights. Without a beat, he immediately reacted, saying “Yes you do! Women take one look at you and think, ‘I ain’t touching him! He looks like he’s on meth.’”

On another occasion, again riding around with him, we had to make a run to an auto parts store. If I recall correctly, one of the city trucks had a bad set of windshield wipers. Once we parked, Dave noticed a railroad maintenance truck driving down the train trucks adjacent to the auto store. It was one of those trucks that have retractable railroad wheels. However, when he saw the truck, he stared dumbfounded – or pretending to be dumbfounded – for a few seconds, then turned to me and said “He ain’t supposed to be doing that: a truck driving on the tracks. What the hell does he think this is, a damn cartoon world or something?”

Something else I have never forgotten about Dave…

Everyday, at the end of the workday, when all the employees got themselves ready to clock out at 3:30, Dave would prepare a sandwich. The sandwich was for his brother, who was residing in a nursing home. His brother was significantly older than him – fifteen years older. Dave was an accident; his parents were long done having kids. I remember him telling me that it even showed in their parenting style, being much looser with him than with his older siblings. They were old and tired and didn’t want to exhaust themselves trying to keep little Dave in line. At the end of every workday, he made a sandwich, because everyday he visited his ailing brother.

Something else about Dave that I learned, first through the other guys commenting about it, followed by a few observations, followed by me directly asking him about it: Apparently, he was a hoarder. Supposedly, his barn was packed.

I do recall, for example, while we were finishing interior work on the new break room, one of the air conditioning diffusers that was to be installed in the drop ceiling was the wrong size. Dave asked our boss, the operations manager, if he could take it home. Our boss, not surprised at the request, allowed him to. The other guys laughed about it, and shook their heads, knowing well that he wouldn’t have any purpose for an industrial air conditioning diffuser.

When I asked Dave about it, the hoarding, he told me he supposed he collects and keeps things because of his parents – they lived through The Great Depression.

Years prior, when I was in high school, I had a friend named Dan. Dan and I grew up in a small Indiana town with a population under 2,500 people. During the summer, Dan worked for a beer distributer that trucked cases and kegs of beer to stores and bars. He would ride with a driver, and work as the young muscle – unloading the trailer.

One of the drivers he worked with was named Larry. Larry had a large, unkempt beard, a large unkempt belly, and eyeglasses that looked like they were made in 1962 – in both style and condition. He looked a little like Santa Clause – if Santa worked as a truck driver the other eleven months of the year, and was unconcerned with his personal hygiene. Dan told me that on one occasion while riding in the cab, Larry began to grunt and pick at his beard. After digging around for a bit, he pulled something out: it was a spider.

One summer evening, Dan and I were riding bicycles on dusty, country roads. While outside of town, he decided he wanted to show me Larry’s house. We pedaled our way there, with Dan leading. When we arrived, it was difficult to see the house, at least in its entirety. The grass and foliage was overgrown – severely overgrown – like a pocket jungle surrounded by corn and bean fields. Taking it all in, I think we counted seven cars on the property, and none of them looked like they were in driving condition. They were better suited as homes for raccoons and opossums. What I could see of the house, from the road, looked more like an abandoned home – and through the windows, you could see that the house was full, with stuff stacked up against the windows.

Dan then told me he wanted to show me Larry’s new house. Larry, apparently, packed himself out of his country home. He ran out of room for even himself, and so he purchased a second home, in town, to live.

We hauled our way back to town and to the little house. Again, the grass was overgrown, paint chipping off the exterior, objects in weathered condition all over the yard, and stuff packed up against the windows. Larry was well on his way to buying a third home.

The last time I saw Old Dave, he was outside a liquor store strapping a case of cheap beer to the back of his Honda motorcycle. I remember it being a case of Hamm’s – the cheap end of cheap beer. I no longer worked for the wastewater treatment unit, and neither did he. He had retired. We talked for a little bit, and through the brief conversation I found out that his brother, who he used to make sandwiches for, had passed away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vignette: BFE

I have this vague memory from several years ago that I think about infrequently…not often. I was standing in my parents’ kitchen, and it was night. I was anxious and very distressed over something – what it was specifically, I don’t recall. Standing in the dark kitchen, leaned against a counter top, I began praying about whatever it was that was worrying me. After the brief prayer, I remember looking up and out the window that faced my parents’ backyard. Through the window, I saw – or at least I thought I saw – a very tall, figure of light walking across the yard in the night. Once it was outside the frame of the window, or outside the scope of what I could see through the window from where I was standing, I approached the window to expand my view of the yard. There was nothing. I moved to another room, farther down the house, in the direction that the figure of light was moving. I looked through another window – again, nothing. I moved farther down to another window – nothing.

As I mentioned, I don’t think much about it now. However, in the moment, I remember thinking that I really saw something, whether it was real or my imagination. Maybe I saw someone otherworldly – an inter-dimensional being from another plane of existence – or maybe it was an isolated hallucination, a brief neurological episode, brought on by heightened anxiety combined with religious belief.

Whatever it was then, it’s a fading, dream-like memory now.

For six years, every summer, I worked for the Parks Department of my hometown – a small town in Northern Indiana. During the years I worked, there were only two parks under the department: a very small one on the North end of town, and a very large one on the East side of town, through which the Tippecanoe River snaked. The large one was often referred to as simply: “the Town Park.” The river’s route split the Town Park in two, with the majority of the property shaped like an elongated horseshoe or a peninsula when seen from an aerial view. Supposedly, in the 1950s, there were a couple sightings of a Sasquatch – a BigFoot – in my hometown near the river; and supposedly, according to the testimonies, he had an unpleasant odor. The large park – the Town Park – hosted various sports tournaments, the county fair, and the Northern Indiana Power From the Past, which was a large, weeklong event that showcased antique tractors, antique automobiles, a flea market, and a thrilling wood chipper demonstration.

One of my responsibilities was to clean and lock up the public restrooms every evening, Monday through Friday. There was one set of restrooms – one building, with a men’s room on the East side, and a women’s room on the West. Throughout the rest of the park, including the area across the suspension bridge where the tennis courts were located, there were “Port-a-Johns” or out houses that were maintained by a separate, external company. However, the permanent, brick & mortar restrooms were my responsibility to sanitize.

Each night, during the week, I would have to drop whatever it was I was doing and go to the park. I would park my truck at the office, clock in, and then walk over to the restrooms. Typically, cleaning the restrooms was expected to take me thirty minutes. I wasn’t allowed to work over forty hours a week; the town didn’t want to pay me overtime. So, I worked seven and a half hours during the day, each day: mowing, trimming, painting, planting flowers, watering trees and picking up trash.

Along with the doors to each restroom, there was also a door to a storage and janitorial closet. Inside were toiletry supplies to replace what was used throughout the day: toilet paper, disposable hand towels, and liquid soap. There was also my janitor bucket, with spray bottles, a toilet brush, toilet bowl cleaner, etc. I’d put on latex gloves, grab my bucket, and get to work.

Some men go to work carrying a nice, leather business bag with a laptop and presentation notes. Others…a bucket.

Often, in the evenings, there would be teenagers parked near the restrooms, smoking cigarettes, texting on their flip phones, playing Linkin Park through their car stereos, revving their truck engines, and complaining about their teachers or their parents.

Most of the time, really, the restrooms weren’t in too bad of shape. It would require basic sanitation measures: spraying the toilets and sinks with disinfectant and wiping them all down, refilling both the paper towel dispenser and the toilet paper holders. Some nights, however, I wished I was I wearing a hazmat suit.

I’ll try not to be overly graphic, but I still want to provide an example of “some nights.”

One evening, in the men’s room, one of the toilets had the lid down over the seat. On top of the lid was a heavy pile of feces. Under the lid, I discovered, was more treasure: the bowl was stuffed with dirty toilet paper, and even more feces. And the tank – or the upper deck – was also stuffed full of toilet paper.

I’m not sure that all this work was done by a single person. The amount was a sight to behold. This might have been a two-man job, toiling away in the stall to make the biggest mess that they could, laughing and defecating together. …Or maybe they weren’t laughing? Perhaps they took their work very seriously; and afterwards, stood back, examining their creation as if it were a display of contemporary, postmodern art that represented the disappearance of positive masculine influence upon children in the 21st Century.

A pretentious, postmodern pile of shit.

I don’t specifically recall if I did – probably because my mind repressed the trauma to a limited extent – but I imagine I gagged at both the sight and smell of it.

Occasionally, from time to time, one or more of the toilets would be blown apart by an explosive. This was the summer, and fireworks stores were open for business, selling to idle hands.

Blowing things up was something you did as a teenager in farmland Indiana. When I was in high school, my friends and I would blow up aerosol cans on country roads. One of these friends, and I, both worked as summer help at a local factory – a factory that employed half the town. At the factory, there were pressurized spray cans of a powerful adhesive remover. One day, he stole a couple cans. I was too scared to. At night, a group of us drove out to the country, amid the corn and bean fields, with our spray paint cans and a pellet gun. We searched for a quiet road and stopped the car. An aerosol can was placed a good distance away, ahead of the car. Gasoline was dumped on it, and then we lit it on fire. We’d run back to the car, and get behind it – putting it between us and the explosive. From behind the vehicle, one of us would shoot the flaming spray paint can with the pellet gun and it would explode into a ball of fire. Then we’d change location – find another road. I remember we discovered one with a segment of thick tree coverage, nearly creating a tunnel of limbs and leaves over the length of road. With the sky obscured, and the moonlight blocked out, it was exceptionally dark. In the darkness, we lit a can of the adhesive remover on fire. Once again, from safely behind the car, one of us aimed the pellet gun at the flames. This time, unexpectedly, when the aerosol can was pierced, instead of a ball of fire, it erupted into a massive mushroom cloud that illuminated the tunnel. For a very brief moment, it was very bright. …Luckily, our dumbasses never caught a tree or field on fire.

So, I blew up aerosol cans on country roads. Other kids blew up toilets in public restrooms.

One night, when I arrived at the park for my half hour of janitorial work, I was doing my usual walk to the restrooms from the park office, after clocking-in. While walking in the night, I heard the sound of someone crying. I looked to the left, and could see the silhouette of a girl pacing, holding a phone to her ear. I listened and could hear her begging and pleading, between sobs, for a ride. I walked up to the storage closet door, unlocked it, flipped the switch for the single light bulb with cobwebs as a cover, and got my bucket.

I sprayed disinfectant, wiped down toilet seats, and replenished the paper towel dispenser in the men’s restroom. As I was walking around to the other side, to the women’s restroom, I could still hear the girl crying in the dark. At some point, while in the women’s restroom, I told myself, “If she’s still here, in the park, when I’m done and clocked out, I’ll offer her a ride.”

I finished cleaning the women’s restroom, checked that the doors were locked, put my bucket away, locked the storage closet, and irrationally checked again that the restroom doors were locked. On my walk back to the office, I didn’t hear a sound. I guess she was gone; I was off the hook. I sat in the office for a few minutes before clocking out to get my full 30 minutes. Once I punched out, I shut off the lights and locked the office door. I paused, because I faintly heard her in the distance, breaking the stillness of the night.

I got in my truck and drove it over to the restrooms, where she was seated nearby on a picnic table, crying.

I asked her if she needed a ride home. Her face changed; she immediately stopped crying. She thanked me profusely, and then she called me her angel.

She was a petite and pretty, fair-skinned and freckled, in little denim shorts, with long, flowing red hair. She was also inebriated.

She hopped into the passenger side of the cab, and drunkenly reiterated that I was her angel. I didn’t anticipate the length of the drive; her house ended up being thirty minutes away, in the middle of nowhere. I remember thinking the next day that I wouldn’t have been able to retrace the drive again. Now, today, all I remember was that we drove East…with my truck’s headlights going before us.

During the drive, she told me what happened – why she was stranded at the park that night. Apparently, she and her boyfriend had been drinking in the park that evening and got into a fight. He left her with no ride home, and refused to return for her. I asked her who she was on the phone with earlier. She said that she had called several people, no one was available, and her parents refused to come get her. I also discovered that her boyfriend was someone that I went to school with, and was in my high school graduating class – a class of about 120.

I had no idea where we were going in the night; thankfully I had my little intoxicated navigator with a tear-stained face.

She kept bringing up that she had a shotgun under her bed at home. I remember, even before the shotgun was mentioned, I was very reserved in my demeanor. I was trying my best to counterbalance her emotional state. She talked a lot, and I was quiet, and all my responses had the intention of trying to de-escalate her, and her present emotional state. For the thirty minute drive, I played the role of Out Patient Case Manager, a social worker in a truck. I made calm suggestions, and reiterated them, and she reassured me that the shotgun would not be used…well, not used for anything more than intimidation. She must have convinced me, because I didn’t take any action after I safely delivered her home. She either convinced me, or I really didn’t care much if my former classmate got murdered with a shotgun.

…and he didn’t: He didn’t get murdered with a shotgun. Several years later, he made the news for felony charges of fraud and theft.

Her house was on the bend of a dirt road, partially hidden by rural overgrowth and the darkness of night. She thanked me profusely again, referred to me as an angel again, and walked a surprisingly straight line to her front door.

To get home, I simply drove West. If you just roughly know where you are going, country roads in Northern Indiana are reasonably easy to navigate. Most of them are straight, perpendicular lines, forming a simple grid of gravel and dirt pathways cutting through the forests, cornfields, and cattle pastures. I drove West in the summer night, a wall of growing corn on each side, in a shadowy blur of green, and Third Eye Blind turned up loud.

Vignette: Station One

In late July of 2016, a wildfire broke out North of Los Angeles, just outside the City of Santa Clarita. This wildfire grew quickly, spreading out of control, and received a name – The Sand Fire – with news headlines referring to it as such. Reports state that the wildfire started on the afternoon of July 22, 2016. I arrived in Santa Clarita just 24 hours before, on the afternoon of July 21st, after driving over 2,000 miles from Indiana.

I left Indiana for California for a various reasons. However, looking back, the underlying or foundational reason was that I had found myself in a rut; my life had become stagnant, lacking growth or development.

Specifically, I stayed in Newhall, the southernmost and oldest community, or district, of Santa Clarita. On a map, or from an aerial view, Santa Clarita forms a Y-shape or an upside down triangle, flanked by highways 14 and 5. Newhall is located at the bottom, near the point, where 14 and 5 meet. The apartment building where I was residing resembled Butch’s place in 1994’s Pulp Fiction – where Vincent Vega is gunned down in the bathroom. I crashed on the couch in an apartment where five other guys already lived. I called that couch “Station One,” because generally – most days during my time in California – you could either find me at “Station One” or “Station Two,” which was the coffee shop down the street, just a couple blocks away. The short daily walk to the coffee shop took me past a house with fake, plastic grass, where most days a sweet dog was usually napping. Anytime the dog was out, I would get her attention and pet her head, play with her ears, and tell her she was good. There were many houses with green, lush grass made of plastic, but there were several more with brown, parched yards.

I spent a lot of time at the coffee shop down the street. I spent a lot of time drinking coffee. It was 30% of my diet while I was in California; the other two-thirds was made up of burritos and booze. That’s really not far from the truth; the majority of what I ate during that time was Mexican food, and most often a burrito. I never seemed to get tired of them.

The day after arriving in sunny California, there was a massive plume of smoke in the sky that looked like a volcano had erupted. Within a few days, the sky was split down the middle: half was clear and blue, while the other half was a thick blanket of grey and shades of brown. One day, I rode in the passenger seat of a ‘93 Mercury Capri convertible – southbound on Sierra Highway to get back to Newhall – as ash started to fall from above.

The Sand Fire continued into August, and scorched over 41,000 acres of land.

Santa Clarita wasn’t a stranger to catastrophe and tragedy. In 1928, the Santa Clarita region was the location of the second worst disaster in California’s history, after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, in terms of lives lost. In March 1928, the St. Francis Dam collapsed, and the subsequent wave of water washed away the lives of more than 430 people. The catastrophic rupture released an initial 140-foot avalanche of water. Large pieces of concrete were washed away. The largest, weighing 10,000 tons, rested about three-quarters of a mile from the dam site. The water moved southwest across California, destroying over a 1,000 homes. It traveled a total of 54 miles in five and a half hours, and washed out to sea near Ventura, dumping victims into the Pacific. Bodies would wash ashore as far south as San Diego. Many were never recovered. The dam’s remaining structure became known as “The Tombstone.”

Newhall was the site of another tragic incident known as the “Newhall Massacre” – a shootout that occurred in 1970 between two heavily armed career criminals and officers of the California Highway Patrol. Within five minutes, four officers were killed in the gunfire outside a truck stop on Interstate 5. The two gunmen fled the scene. Of the four patrol officers killed, the oldest was twenty-five; all were married and had children. The next day, in a house that he broke into, one of the criminals killed himself by discharging a shotgun placed under his chin; the shotgun was stolen from one of the officers killed the night before. The other gunman followed, committing suicide forty years later in Kern Valley State Prison, a maximum-security penitentiary.

When I arrived in Newhall, it was just two or three weeks after the release of Pokémon Go. At night, the streets were filled with young teenagers playing the augmented reality game – walking around in small groups, eyes down, glued to their mobile devices. Augmented reality, generally speaking, uses the real world environment and GPS locations, but adds to it – or augments it – with computer-generated graphics. It’s like adding a fictional layer on top of the real world that can only be seen through a mobile device. While the more commonly cited “virtual reality” entirely replaces the real world with a simulated one, usually through the use of a headset.

Another craze started not long after I arrived in California: The Creepy Clown Craze. Unsettling incidents of people dressed as evil clowns were making the news. Starting on the East Coast, calls to the police with reports of scary clowns increased and spread across the nation, reaching the West Coast by fall. After Halloween, the months of paranoia and reports stopped.

One night, while sleeping at Station One, I had a vivid dream…

In the dream, I woke up in a big white bed in a large, clean room of modern architectural design and minimal décor. The room was very open and spacious. The wall in front of me was entirely made up of floor-to-ceiling windows. The view through the windows was of a massive tropical mountain, covered with lush, green coffee plants feeding on the sunlight. Clouds were rolling down the face of the mountain, towards me.

I was in Costa Rica.

Suddenly, I was also on the phone – I think it was a cordless house phone – talking with my friend Nate. Over the phone, Nate was telling me how the fear of death motivated him to live life to the fullest – to take advantage of life and fill it with rich experiences.

Then I woke up, still at Station One.

I came to California to fight stagnation, to take advantage of life and fill it with rich experiences, but I found myself on a couch.

I had been to Costa Rica before. The first time I visited was in December 2014, and it stirred something within me. My friend Chris and I traveled together, flying out of Indianapolis to Miami, and from Miami to Costa Rica – two, three hour flights. We flew down to meet Nate.

We stayed in the mountains outside of Atenas, which is a small town thirty minutes West of the capital city of San Jose. Atenas sits in a valley, surrounded by tropical mountains covered in coffee plantations. The Pacific coast is about an hour drive away through the winding roads that follow the varied topography. From high points in the terrain, though, you can see the ocean. The sun rose around 5:30 in the morning, and was set around 5:30 in the evening, providing 12 hours days, and nights with a view of the twinkling lights in the valley below. One morning, when I woke up, there was a large cloud floating slowly over the valley, straight out, at the level of the house; it was a little surreal.

Our mornings were long; we took our time. It was usually coffee and cigarettes outside on the porch, make breakfast, then eat breakfast on the porch, followed by more coffee and cigarettes. Coffee was made in a sock or a chorreador de café or simply a chorreador, related to the verb, chorrear, which means “to drip” or “to trickle.” A chorreador – as a whole, rustic unit – is a cloth filter shaped like a sock and hung from a stand, and a cup or mug is placed under the filter. It’s simply a pour-over method of making coffee; hot water is leached through coffee grounds held in the cloth filter, and then coffee drips into the mug or container below. This is the way that coffee is traditionally made in Costa Rica.

Interestingly, the food in Costa Rica is nothing to write home about. However, there was a rich, abundant farmers market with excellent produce. We purchased what we needed there, and made our meals at home. Well, I can’t say that I contributed much, honestly. I usually just watched, talked and drank beer, most often an Imperial – a lager, and Costa Rica’s most popular beer. There were a couple great places that we ate at: a diner in the mountains on the way to the Pacific, and a ribs joint. The diner, La Casita del Café, sat at a high elevation between Atenas and the small town of San Mateo, and you could sit at a counter with an incredible view across the mountains all the way to the Pacific in the far, faded distance. We went to the ribs place on a rainy evening during the Festival de la Luz – The Festival of the Lights – they were broadcasting the San Jose parade on television. The place was very small, with a dirt floor, or maybe it was just a very dirty concrete floor. The ribs were served with yucas, a supplement for potatoes – also called “cassavas.” The meal was fantastic; we ate with the rain gently coming down on the metal roof, and with a scrappy, sickly little rat dog begging for nibbles at our feet.

We explored various places, including Desmonte, Playa Hermosa, and Montezuma – a “Bohemian” beach town on the Nicoya Peninsula that we reached by ferry. I remember feeling vibrant and free while there in Costa Rica, and that feeling remained with me for a short while after returning to Indiana. For a week or two, after arriving back in the States, I felt youthful, and a little rebellious. I hadn’t felt like that since high school. It was like I was ten years younger.

The law of the land in Costa Rica is Pura Vida. Pura Vida is a characteristic phrase or expression – often used as a greeting or farewell – that translates to “Pure Life” in English.

As I mentioned, visiting Costa Rica stirred something within me. That trip, I think, was the genesis of me leaving for California a year and a half later. I wanted pura vida. I wanted to augment my reality.

Instead, I was on a couch, only dreaming of more.

It’s not like I didn’t do anything notable while I was in California. I’ve somewhat misrepresented my time there. I went to Santa Monica, Venice, and Ventura. I visited a casting agency in Beverly Hills, participated in a script reading at a studio in Los Angeles, hiked in Towsley Canyon Park, attended a party, and networked my way into a face-to-face interview with a successful digital marketing agency. I also met some kind, generous, and encouraging people…and ate a lot of burritos.

Despite all that, though, ultimately, I think I was paralyzed by fear. Fear kept me on that couch, and fear led to me running, driving back across the States.

Fearfulness can lead to stagnation. Cowardice can put you in a rut.

Several months after I left, I noticed news reports of a Pacific storm that unloaded a deluge of torrential rain and severe wind on Southern California – causing floods, ravaging gusts of wind, mudslides, sinkholes swallowing cars, and evacuations. …and a part of me wished I was there, weathering the storm.

Vignette: Kaleidoscope of Color

On December 26th 2004, a massive earthquake shifted the earth, with an epicenter located just off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. Presently, at the time of this writing (in early 2017), it is the third largest earthquake ever recorded since the invention of the seismograph. The only two larger earthquakes both occurred in the 1960s: one in Alaska in 1964, and the other in Chile in 1960. The earthquake generated a seismic ocean wave called a tsunami. In deep waters, waves of this type travel under the surface and can appear as nothing more than a small hump; and, in deep waters, the wave moves at a very high rate of speed, sometimes over 500 miles per hour. When it reaches shallow coastal waters it slows down tremendously but builds in height. Along some stretches of coastal land, the tsunami wave was 80 to 100 feet tall when approaching shore.

Catastrophic destruction devastated coastal communities around the Indian Ocean, and approximately a quarter-million lives were lost.

Five months later, in May 2005, I was in Thailand – in the Phang Nga province.

I traveled across the Pacific with a loose team of people to assist with continued humanitarian aid and ongoing relief work. A large portion of the people I traveled with were undergraduate students. I had just finished my freshman year of college. We initially landed in Taiwan, after an eleven-hour flight across the Pacific, and then took a connection flight from Taiwan to Bangkok.

From Bangkok, it was another nine to ten hour bus ride to where we stayed.

With it being twelve years ago, I am uncertain of where exactly in the Phang Nga province our mainland bungalow was located. After exchanging e-mails with a friend who was a part of the relief team twelve years ago, and looking over various maps and photographs, it seems likely that our lodging was near the Mu Ko Surin Pier, a port in Khura.

Over the next week to ten days, after breakfast, we walked down a dirt road – with motorbikes coming and going – to the pier. Numerous fishing boats were docked in the port, painted in various bright colors, filling the harbor with a kaleidoscope of reds, blues, oranges and greens. From the pier, we motored an hour through the Andaman Sea to the island of Ko Phra Thong in long-tail boats.

Long-tail boats are native to Southeast Asia, and found throughout the region, but the iconic style is distinctly Thai, with the boats commonly being referred to as “Thai Long-tails.” The motor – often times a removed, stripped down car engine – is positioned at the stern, within the boat, high and dry. The engine is mounted upon a turret that provides both vertical and horizontal movement. Swiveling up and down helps with avoiding rocks, coral, nets and debris; it also allows for running the engine on “neutral” – achieved when the propeller is levered completely out the water. The motor can be rotated horizontally 180 degrees, from port to starboard. The rustic boats get their name and distinct appearance due to the extended driveshaft, which is elongated with several meters of metal pole, and the propeller is directly attached to the tail end. Long-tails are structurally sound, tough little boats. Older long-tails, due to attentive maintenance over time, have had nearly every wooden part replaced – piece by piece, over the years – begging the ontological question: “Is it still the same boat?”

The island of Ko Phra Thong is home to a people known as the Mokens, a tribe of “sea gypsies.” They are a marginalized group of semi-nomadic, hunter-gatherers whose lifestyle is heavily based upon the sea. They inhabit islands along the west coast of Thailand, living in modest, minimalist huts that stand upon stilts – most of them at a height tall enough to walk under. Rising water can pass under their homes, flowing with little-to-no resistance. Mokens also live in small, thatched-roofed wooden boats called kabangs. They fish with simple tools, such as spears and nets, and can dive – remaining underwater – for six to eight minutes. The children take their first steps, not on land, but in water – they can swim before they can walk. Moken children have been observed to have over twice the visual acuity (or focus) under the sea as compared to the average person. When most people open their eyes under water, the iris expands or dilates, making the pupil larger, allowing for more light to enter – the world around is brightened but remains blurry. In contrast, the eyes of Moken children do the opposite: the iris closes, creating a very small pupil, dramatically increasing focus and clarity, providing rich detail.

The Mokens live in the moment – in tune with the surrounding natural world – and have no direct translations in their language for the English words “when” “want” “take” or “worry.” They are non-existent.

The Mokens received media attention following the 2004 tsunami, because of their miraculous survival. Through folklore, passed down for centuries, the Mokens escaped the deadly tsunami. The ancient myth of Laboon – the Giant Wave or “the wave that eats people” – states that before the wave comes, the sea is swallowed. Noting the great drawback of the ocean, they recalled the story of Laboon. Some Mokens claimed to have had strange dreams in the nights leading up to the tsunami – dreams of the sea turning blood red. Others asserted that a notable stillness and silence occurred before the wave, a quiet before the storm.

The cicadas that were normally loud, suddenly, and ominously, went silent.

Another culture that we encountered in Thailand, on the mainland, were Burmese – people from the neighboring country of Myanmar, located against the northwest border of Thailand. The country is also known as Burma. Today, it seems that both names are used depending on diplomatic considerations, due to governing conflict (the history of which I know very little about). I do know that the official name change occurred in 1989, from Burma to the Union of Myanmar, during a military revolution.

Burmese make up Thailand’s largest migrant population. There are approximately 1.5 million Burmese living in Thailand, which makes up about 70% of Myanmar’s total overseas population.

A Burmese family was living in a home near our lodging on the mainland. One morning before breakfast, a small group, including myself, was invited to their home where they applied Thanaka to our faces.

Thanaka is a yellowish-white, almost pale gold, cosmetic paste – indigenous to Myanmar – made from ground tree bark. The grounds are mixed with water to form a paste. Supposedly, the cream has been made and worn by the Burmese people for over 2,000 years. Women most commonly wear Thanaka, but it is also seen, to a lesser extent, on the faces of men and young boys. It is said that the cream has a myriad of health benefits, including protection from the sun – along with anti-bacterial, anti-aging and anti-oxidant qualities.

When we first arrived on the island of Ko Phra Thong, there was only one standing home left, under which we placed our backpacks and other carry-on supplies. There were two other homes under construction – started, I believe, by a previous relief group in the months prior to our arrival. Other than these structures, I don’t recall seeing any other homes or structures standing on the island. The island is very flat, and consequently experienced especially severe damage from the tsunami. Admittedly, I did not explore the entirety of the island – I didn’t have the opportunity to – but I did hike across it once, to the other side, finding remnants of a Buddhist shrine. Ko Phra Thong was, and is, home to others besides the Mokens. The Mokens, to my knowledge, have no religion aside from ancestor worship. However, approximately 93% of the population of Thailand is Buddhist. In the Thai language, the name Phra Thong means “Golden Buddha.” While Ko simply means “island.” (Ko is all over maps of the coastal regions of Thailand.) Ko Phra Thong essentially means “Golden Buddha Island” or “Island of the Golden Buddha.” According to legend, a valuable solid gold Buddha image was stolen by pirates and buried on the island hundreds of years ago. It was supposedly never found again, and still lays hidden.

I worked in a t-shirt, swim shorts and shoes, alongside locals who were accustomed to the heat but sought protection from the sun, wearing long sleeve shirts, pants, gloves, layers and desert hats. One stretch of coast was littered with debris, plastic, glass bottles and a child’s rag doll. Some of the group took on the daunting task of attempting to clean up the beach, collecting the refuse and remains.

The beaches were covered with little holes – thousands of them – about the size of a dime or smaller. If you stood still, and remained quiet, small fiddler crabs would creep out into the sunlight. If you remained still, hundreds (if not thousands) of little yellow and orange crabs would surround you. If you took a step, or made a move, the crabs would immediately scurry and duck back into their holes. You could be surrounded by a thousand crabs, and within a second, suddenly be alone. There are a hundred or more different species of fiddler crabs. These were small, only an inch or so across, and as mentioned: their colors were predominately shades of orange and yellow. The distinct quality of all fiddler crabs is their asymmetric claws. The male crabs have one claw that is much larger than the other, with the large one often being about the size of their body. The females have two small claws. This is called “sexual dimorphism,” where the two sexes of the same species exhibit differing characteristics beyond the differences in their sexual organs. Mallard ducks, for example, have drastically different coloring in their feathers: the females are generally brown, while the males have the distinctly green head with a grey body.

I arrived in Thailand in 2005, a country in a juxtaposition of horrible devastation and vibrant beauty – a land with both the heights and lows of life together before my eyes…heaven and hell in the same picture.

Shortly before going to college, I started to experience chronic anxiety. It had such an influence upon me that by the time I traveled to Thailand I was largely in my head, detached from the moment-to-moment experience of life. I was, to some degree, in my own little world. Therefore, my memories of being in Thailand are a little foggy. Most of what I remember are disconnected snapshots.

I remember when we arrived in Bangkok – flying from one “City of Angels” to another – we stayed a night in the city. That night, the group I traveled with went out to experience the Bangkok (whose full ceremonial name includes the phrase “city of angels, great city of immortals”). They explored the lively and culturally abundant open markets, and tasted the renowned cuisine – some of the best culinary dishes offered to the world, balancing dissonance and harmony with their dynamic elements. However, I decided to stay in my hotel room, strangely wanting some time alone. I turned down a rare opportunity for a unique, rich experience. It didn’t make sense. I’m not one to turn down opportunities like that. I want adventure, and to experience life to the fullest. To describe me as a hedonist would be an exaggerated misrepresentation, I think, but I’m certainly in search of experience: out to taste and touch, and turn over stones.

There is a color that I associate with my memory of staying alone in that Bangkok hotel, and it’s grey.

For the remainder of the trip, I don’t recall behaving like that again, not to that extreme. However, I know that throughout the rest of my time in Thailand I was a little detached, because that’s how I was throughout college…and for several years after. The Mokens, who I was there to help and work alongside, were living in the present moment – in focused, detailed clarity – deeply in tune with the surrounding natural world.

Now, over a decade later, I want to go back to Thailand and give it the attention that it deserves. The word “redemption” has somehow become associated with this desire to go back. I want to redeem my experience of Thailand; I want to return there and repossess it.

Until then, I will just continue to order yellow curry with pork in some hole-in-the-wall gem, Stateside.